Colorado Senator Gary Hart was considered to be the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic Presidential nomination in 1987. Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo News, recounts how an alleged adulterous affair forced the potential Democratic nominee to drop out of the race. Hart, reeling from the intense media circus he and his family were subjected to, withdrew into seclusion. He reemerged in November to run a quixotic, scaled down campaign which failed to generate many votes.
Bai places the blame for Gary Hart’s failed campaign squarely on the shoulders of the media. The Miami Herald, acting on the report of an anonymous tipster, had reporters stake out Hart’s Washington townhouse. After spotting his alleged mistress (later identified as Donna Rice), enter the townhouse, the reporters felt compelled to confront Hart on a public street about his personal affairs. At a press conference, a New York Times reporter asked Hart a series of inquisitive queries about his personal life and character. Members of the press had lost interest in Hart’s political agenda and were only interested in his alleged duplicity and hypocrisy. Hart became a punching bag on late night talk shows.
As Bai recounts, Gary Hart was an old school politician who found out that we now live in a confessional, media-driven age. Politicians can no longer keep confidences with the reporters who cover them. Since the 1988 campaign, every successful Presidential candidate has had to come clean about their past misdeeds— Bill Clinton’s affairs, George W. Bush’s alcoholism, Barack Obama’s drug use. As an intellectual introvert, who later obtained a Ph.D. from Oxford, Hart was uncomfortable with such disclosures. Moreover, Hart came from an evangelical Christian, Nazarene background. The idea of discussing personal matters openly was not one that came second nature to him.
While Bai argues that Gary Hart would have made an excellent President, the candidate clearly was not at ease with aspects of modern campaigning. Candidates now have handlers who put barriers between the candidates, the press and the public. Secret service agents prevent candidates from having ordinary human interaction in their daily lives. Advisers muzzle candidates when they want to be outspoken, for fear that they might offend someone. From a public relations standpoint, Gary Hart demonstrated terrible judgment. He should have come clean about his alleged affairs. Of course, the reality is that many excellent candidates do not want to run for President today because they do not want to disclose embarrassing things in their past. Ironically, Hart’s scandal was mild compared to more recent sex scandals. America still had a Puritanical squeamishness in the 1980s. Americans now tolerate a certain amount of sexual impropriety in the lives of their elected officials.